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You are here: Home » Two Tributes to the life of Jerry Collins; My own here- and 'Inky's' also elsewhere on this site.
8 June 2015
Probably the first time I ever heard about Jerry Collins was in the mid-1990s when I saw a letter while sitting around a table with others at the Carillon Club in Wellington. The club was just a committee of five or six local friends who were there that night, members of a funding group we had set up in 1992 designed to help 'youth sport' around the Wellington Region.
We were not a large funding body, heaven knows we only had a couple of thousand dollars in the kitty at any one time, but we liked to help local 'underdog' kids in their teenage sporting ambitions. So we had dinners and lunches and raised monies to give away to teenage boys or girls, principally to allow them to attend their Junior Championships here and there.
I remember we used to pay for bus rides up the island or to motel rooms for a few days. We were small time - but we received plenty of applications every month. And we felt good when someone came back to us with a note saying that they had finished 'third or fourth in their event or had set a personal best.' Anything like that. We felt warm inside.
But the letter I am talking about was different in a couple of ways. Firstly it was hand-written and secondly it did not seek monetary assistance.
The letter simply asked (and I quote now from memory) Dear Carillon Club, My name is Jerry Collins and I go to St Pats College. I hope you could get me some new boots please. For rugby I mean. I am trying to do better and get in the first fifteen. Thank you. God Bless you. Yours sincerely, Jerry Collins. PS; I am size 10.
It was something like that. And we liked it.
We liked it because a) it didn't bite into our meagre cash funds, b) because it was a neat and humble request and c) because we knew Jock Hobbs, the old All Black and his wife Nicky, who were friends of so many of us, ran the Mizuno boots franchise in Wellington. And they were pleased to help. A pair of new boots arrived in our club's possession.
So on the next meeting day we had a luncheon at the Star Boating Club's rooms in Wellington (I hope Grant Fox remembers this because he was the guest speaker) and a young Samoan boy in the blue blazer of St Pat's College arrived, with a couple of his mates in support, to receive the grant of some new footwear.
I can clearly remember it; we asked Jerry if, after he had received his boots, if he 'would like to say a few words' of thanks. He did, in a voice so soft that you scarcely could hear. He quietly thanked everyone warmly. Then raising his eyes he 'God Blessed' us all before sitting down.
This was the teenaged Jerry Collins and it was the kind of style which was to become his public look in future years. That was even though he became much more adept at his public speaking. But that day it was very memorable and it made those of us who were there want to hope that a good future would shine for him - and his new boots!
Well, of course, it certainly did. Within a season or two we at the Carillon Club patted each other on the back when he first made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team (in 1997) and then he did it again (in 1998). By 1999 he was in the New Zealand u-19 team which flew to the Under-19 World Championships in Wales where he was declared Player of the Tournament. (Incidentally other members of the winning New Zealand U19 team that trip were the likes of Muliaina, Mauger, Woodcock and McCaw)
A few years later when Jerry had made the All Blacks and gained a degree of paid fame and fortune I remember chatting to him one time while he told me a story of his family's circumstances when 'they first came to New Zealand from Samoa.'
He said when his parents bought a house at Waitangarua, a low-ranking socio-economic suburb near Porirua, they were totally thrilled. 'We thought we had purchased a palace,' said Jerry, 'we had a house ...but... err....we didn't have any furniture. None at all'
It was pretty modest all right.
'When we first moved in, at night Dad used to sling some twine across the living room and then throw a cloth over the rope. Mum and Dad slept on one side and my sister and I slept on the other side. There were no beds. We all lay on the floor.'
'When it came to eating, my sister and I shared a pot and one spoon. Mum and Dad had a similar arrangement. For breakfast we ate bully-beef and rice and we had the same at dinner. For lunch at school we had nothing.
'After some months I asked Mum for some food to take to school for lunch. She agreed that was a good idea and she asked me what I wanted to take. I said, "Mum, for lunch I'd really like bully-beef and rice!"'
From that point Jerry rose to become a wealthy young man through his rise through professional rugby. Eventually he bought his family their own home further up the valley on a better site. Jerry it was who then moved into the original more humble residence.
Overall my feeling is that in the end many New Zealand rugby fans tended to forget about Jerry Collins after he retired from the All Blacks in 2008 when aged only 27. While he had played 48 tests no one seemed to appreciate that the tough flanker had put his body on the line in a uniquely punishing way in every game he played. Quite frankly he looked sluggish by comparison to his earlier times. And he had hamstring and neck injuries.
One time in 2007 he was playing in Christchurch for the Hurricanes and suffered a severe neck injury. There was immediate public concern for the popular flanker when he was shown on the TV News coming into Wellington airport wearing a neck brace. There was much anxiety that he would be out of rugby for a long time in a World Cup year.
But Jerry was not daunted; he missed only one game and then played in a Tana Umaga Super 14 farewell match after only a fortnight away. Keen watchers thought it was noticeable he shied away from contact in that game and played with an uncharacteristic tentativeness.
[In the same month a prominent Australian player had suffered a similar neck injury in a game in Christchurch. He went home for a 'second opinion' and retired straight away.]
On the weekend here in 2015 when news of Jerry and Adilla's tragic car accident came through I was travelling to commentate with the former Wellington and Chiefs prop forward Ben Castle. Ben was close to Collins as a player and via his father Tim who had been Manager of the famous New Zealander for some years.
In conversation before our commentary game Ben agreed that he felt that the New Zealand public had not appreciated what impact Jerry had made in the many season's he had played after his 'retirement' from the All Blacks. Said Ben Castle, ' I had a season with Jerry at Toulon in southern France and while he was not totally comfortable there he was definitely a popular player with the fans. Then he and I both got the chance to move on and play in Wales; I went to Newport Dragons and Jerry went to Swansea Ospreys. I can still remember the excitement that Jerry's appearances would bring over there. I played against him a number of times in our three seasons - and I saw him on TV as well. The crowds at Liberty Stadium in Swansea used to chant 'Jerry, Jerry! when he did something of significance in any game, which was often!' (KQ; rather like the 'Jerry Springer Show' TV crowds?')
Later still Jerry found himself playing in Japan and it was there that he had a much-publicised incident involving the police. Jerry was in a shop with two long knives in his possession. Speculation ran rife about what sort of a person the star had become. But nothing serious came of it.
With regard to his rugby and being honest at a time like this Jerry was probably not one of our greatest blindside forwards; he was not as skilfully talented as, say, the class of Alan Whetton, or Mark Shaw - or Jerome Kaino even. But Jerry just bubbles under them in my rating and probably better than any when it came to the outright allegiance and staunchness which he gave totally to every team and game he played in. That apparently included his latest team, Narbonne in the south of France, which really needed him in this latest season.
In summary when I recall the all-too-short life of Jerry Collins I will only think of his prowess on the rugby field. I loved watching him play. His commitment to every game he played was absolute. And if there was an off-field incident or two which reached the public eye then that was far outweighed by his rare rugby talent. In short, while Jerry was an eccentric sort of lad - the sadness at his passing might just have come when he was at the most settled in a family sense in his sometimes turbulent but always humble and generous life.
He came a long way from the boy sleeping on the floor and writing the letter hoping for new boots.
Footnote; The other thing which must not be forgotten is that Jerry Collins was an All Black test captain; three times he was given leadership of our most famous team and each time victory was posted for 'our boys.' (In 2006 he won 25-19 v Argentina in Buenos Aires; then in 2007 108-13 v Portugal in Lyon and 85-8 v Romania in Toulouse) That in itself deserves high standing to be added onto his illustrious rugby CV.
Vale Jerry Collins. 1980-2015.
And the Richie McCaw led, and Graham Henry coached, 2011 All Blacks begin their campaign by beating Tonga 41-10 on Eden Park
Royal Air Force, Leicester and England
85 internationals for England 1984–96
6 internationals for British Isles 1989-93
Leicester, Newcastle and England
27 internationals for England 1992-98
1 international for British Lions 1997
Two dashing brothers who were regular wingers in England’s selections in the 1980s and 90s.
Dealing first with Rory, who was the elder by nearly six years. He was a dashing wing, as befitted his occupation as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. At the end of his career he had played 85 internationals for England, a record total till beaten by Jason Leonard. His total of test tries scored was also an England record, with 49 scored (plus one in a Lions test) boosting his final total to 50. This placed him second on the all-time test try-scoring record, behind David Campese’s 64 tries. Ironically his final tally of test tries came during a time when England was in a period of playing mostly ten-man rugby. Rory Underwood gained a reputation for being underused on occasions but having a rare talent for scoring tries when the ball did come his way.
Rory was born in Middlesbrough and Tony in Ipoh, Malaysia, the brothers were of part-Chinese origins, a rugby rarity in itself, and they spent some of their childhood in Malaysia. Rory’s first cap was against Ireland in 1984. Most of his caps were won on the left wing, but he could play more than competently on the right side (his English record-equaling total of five tries against Fiji at Twickenham in 1989 came when he was playing on the right wing side).
Rory’s Air Force commitments meant he missed several England tours, which meant his test match tally could have been even higher. This popular and dynamic England star was a member of the England team which contested the three Rugby World Cups, in 1987, 1991 and 1995; he played in three Grand Slam-winning England seasons, plus four Five Nations titles. He played in the 1991 World Cup final at Twickenham after scoring four tries in the lead-up games. He also toured with the British Isles to Australia in 1989 and to New Zealand in 1993.
Tony Underwood first came to the fore in 1989 when he appeared for Barbarians Club against the touring All Blacks at Twickenham. He made the England team for a tour to Argentina the following year but did not play an actual test until late in 1992. As his brother Rory was on the other wing (v Canada at Wembley) they became the first pair of brothers to play in an England team since Arthur and Harold Wheatley in 1938.
The forte of Tony’s game was blistering acceleration and a huge confidence to use it well. He toured New Zealand, with his brother in the 1993 British Lions and the two also shared England’s Grand Slam win in 1995. Tony had a second Lions tour, to South Africa in 1997.
At the 1995 World Cup in South Africa Tony had the extremely unenviable task of marking a rampant Jonah Lomu of New Zealand in one of the semi-finals games. Sadly, for England’s hopes at that tournament, and the memory of Tony Underwood as an international player, the video of him being repeatedly trampled underfoot or run around by the giant-sized Lomu, as he went on to score four tries, has been played over and over again. Tony deserved better than this. At his best he was a top player capable of many good things on the field, and like his brother, one of the best wingers England has ever produced.
Which well-known sevens rugby coach made this memorable quotation? 'At the Hong Kong sevens bowls and plates are only for eating off - not playing for?'